KSJ Tracker December 4, 2012

"Both stories were lies"-A reporter takes an honest look at what he does.

Here's what can happen when a reporter decides to be completely honest about the limitations and problems inherent in good medical writing.

Larry Husten, a respected medical writer who specializes in coverage of cardiology, wrote a post for Forbes yesterday that began like this:

Last week I wrote twice about exercise. Strictly speaking, both stories were complete lies.

That took my breath away. Should we lock this guy up? What exactly is he talking about?

Actually, Husten is making a strong pitch for better coverage of studies that don't quite say what they seem to say.

The first case in point: A study that found that certain drugs and exercise "are independently associated with low mortality" in individuals with abnormal cholesterol. The researchers concluded that this finding reinforces "the importance of physical activity" for those individuals.

Here's Husten's take:

It almost seems churlish to insist on the point, but of course the study (like all other observational studies) didn’t– couldn’t– actually say anything about the real effect of exercise on health. It seems reasonable to assume that more exercise leads to increased fitness leads to improved health. That’s what we all probably think and believe. It’s common wisdom. But it’s not entirely unreasonable to suppose that healthy people are much more likely to exercise, in effect reversing the cause and effect.

Even if the study proved that exercise led to better health, it still wouldn't prove that people who were prescribed an exercise regimen would stick to it and actually end up healthier, Husten writes.

The second study he examines suggested that too much exercise can be harmful. It's possible, writes Husten, that people attracted to extreme sports are different from those who aren't, and perhaps it is those differences that lead to harm.

The problem here seems to be that it is the researchers themselves who are making these faulty claims for and against exercise, making it difficult for reporters without Husten's expertise to challenge the conclusions. 

This is a solid analysis. Husten doesn't have a solution; but he does well to remind us to be on guard against this continuing problem.

-Paul Raeburn


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